One difficulty facing those who take a borderline libertarian view of subsidiarity is that doing so fails to take into account what encyclicals have said concerning the State, its proper role and functions, and particularly its rightful involvement in the market. This, as I have contended elsewhere, results in allowing the distributist tail to wag the CST dog.
It is my hope, then, to herein demonstrate what I believe to be a more accurate understanding of subsidiarity and how it should function alongside the powers and responsibilities belonging to various spheres of authority within the political economy, be it the individual, the family, the workforce, the church, or even local, regional, state, national, or international civil authorities.
Let me demonstrate what I mean.
We would do well to first consider the role of what the Magisterium has said concerning the State. For sake of time and space, as well as the fact that this particular encyclical is an excellent source for material pertaining to this matter, I will focus almost all of my attention on the papal letter Mater et Magistra. I will also add a few tidbits from the CCC and its Compendium, both of which substantiate and further clarify those issues dealt with by the popes in their universal letters.
Pope John XXIII was no foe of the State. As with Pope Leo XIII and all those pontiffs before and after him, he saw the State as being a authority deriving its power from God. He believed its existence to be most natural in the order of men. And as we will see, he believed the role and function of the State to be much more broad than many of the libertarian-leaning distributists.
Read Mater et Magistra, and search out those portions I will reference here. See what the pontiff says of the State. Consider whether or not this view of the State is in harmony with the position advocated by those whose definition of subsidiarity would make the State an almost non-existent entity.
Take for example, nos. 20-21. Here we are told that the State “whole raison d’etre” is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. Echoing the Leonine theme of the Church’s insistence that the State take special, and even preferential treatment of the poor and working class, he praises “labor laws” regarding environmental conditions of laborers, child labor laws, and anything harmful to their material and spiritual interests.
Number 44 requires the State to intervene on occasions where individuals cannot work out matters concerning the division and distribution of work.
Number 60 makes explicit the responsibility of the civil government in areas of health care, education, career opportunities, and even the rehabilitation of those who are physically and mentally handicapped.
We find in 74 the civil authorities responsibility to “secure without interruption” the material conditions in which the citizens of the nation may fully develop. Number 79 goes further, indicating that the State is to be vigilant over and within the economy, assuring that work will be maximized amongst the citizenry, that privileged classes would not be permitted to rise up, that there would be an equilibrium amongst wages and the price of goods, that both goods and services would be accessible to the greatest number, and that the three branches of the economy (i.e. agriculture, industry, and service) would be regulated in such a manner as to ensure that they will grow together rather than for any of them to be absorbed with the dominance of any other. To top it off, the civil government was to have the authority necessary to direct the current contract system that divides capitalists from wage-earners to one resembling a partnership.
We could also deal with numbers 104 (regulating Big Business so as to operate in a manner promoting the common good over against special interests), 115 (putting in place an economic system wherein the distribution of wealth, land, houses, tools and equipment used by various industries, and shares in medium and large business concerns would all be maximized), 116 (granting to the State various activities that “carry with them power too great” to be left to lower orders), 88 and 127 (dealing with state involvement in ventures such as roads, transportation, communication, drinking water, housing, health care and service providers, technical and professional education, religious and recreational facilities, and subsidies for family farms), 150-151 (demanding vigilant care as to the further elimination of economic and social inequalities and imbalances, the supply of labor, drift of population, wages, taxes, credit, investment, and the promotion of useful employment, enterprising initiative, and the exploitation of local resources), and 168 (the redistribution of riches amongst all within the community and working towards ensuring that agriculture, service, and industry progress evenly and simultaneously). The list goes on an on.
For anyone to walk away from even this one encyclical with the idea that it proposes the kind of “lowest rung possible” subsidiarity regarding virtually every economic activity under the sun would be a sure indicator that they either didn’t really read the encyclical or they have a terrible case of selective memory.
But what of those places that deal with subsidiarity? We have discussed at some length the role and proper functions of the State, but what then are we to make of this principle of subsidiarity? Well, let’s go back to Mater et Magistra for a moment.
Number 53 within Mater et Magistra sounds much like the version of subsidiarity commonly promoted by those harboring a general distrust (or disdain) for civil government. But it would be injurious to tear it from its surrounding context. For number 53 is surrounded by affirmations that make absurd the notion that the pope(s) have promoted this “lowest rung possible in any and all situations” subsidiarity. Looking at number 52, we see Pope John XXIII explicitly stating that “the civil power must also have a hand in the economy.” And this intervention is not merely an afterthought, or functioning as a clean-up watchman waiting for an otherwise private market to make a mistake. No, it is to “promote production” in a way that is “calculated” and has as its aim “social progress and the well-being of all citizens.” Remember, this is what immediately precedes the popes take on subsidiarity.
Following number 53 we see the pope go right back into promoting state intervention and direction of the economy. In number 54 he affirms the State’s obligation to minimize imbalances amongst various sectors within the economy, to implement policies that do not pit one people, region, or nation against another, and to erect safeguards against mass unemployment and fluctuations within the economy. Again, this follows on the heels of the section dealing with subsidiarity.
The pope further deals with subsidiarity in number 117, but he presupposes what had already been established by other popes regarding the various spheres of authority within the political economy as well as the rights and responsibilities belonging to each. The civil government (as with the individual, family, the marketplace, and the church) had been assigned various functions. These were always to be kept in view when talking of subsidiarity, as it would be just as wrong for a lower sphere to take upon itself what rightfully belongs to a higher sphere as it would for the higher sphere to deprive or absorb those responsibilities properly acknowledged as belonging to a lower sphere. While libertarians may tend to see only a higher sphere absorbing a lower sphere as a form of aggression, the traditionalist and encyclical enthusiast would do well to see it as a two-way street.
While one could possibly construct a way that a specific function assigned to a particular sphere may be done by another sphere, be it replacing the function of the individual or family with the State or vice-versa, this would not constitute subsidiarity. Rather, it would be for one sphere to break ranks, absorbing what does not belong to it. In short, even subsidiarity works in a manner that accepts the rightful authority and functions of other spheres within the political economy, be they higher or lower, belonging to the State or the individual.
Let us just for a moment take a peak at the encyclical known as Quadragesimo Anno. It is here where we find the birthplace of subsidiarity in Catholic Social Teaching. Yet even here we see civil and church authorities granting special care for the poor and weak in society (#25), the praise of labor laws,1 the redistribution of wealth for the common good,2 requiring the State to work towards establishing an “ownership society”,3 the condemnation of laissez-faire,4 and even demanding that the State take hold of the reigns of the “free market” in order to direct it towards the common good.5
None of this sounds unfamiliar to those holding a position concerning subsidiarity and the State detailed ever so consistently in the papal letters. But it would sound awfully strange to those granting to subsidiarity a function and reach it was never meant to have, nor ever recognized by our most highly esteemed Roman Pontiffs as ever having in the first place.
Before bringing this entry to an end, I believe it would do us well to look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and Compendium have to say regarding the definition of subsidiarity. I believe that these two sources, and the definition they provide the Catholic, vindicate the premise of this entry, as well as the arguments used to substantiate it.
CCC 1883: Subsidiarity: according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of a the common good.”
Subsidiarity: “The principle of subsidiarity states that a community of higher order should not assume the task belonging to a community of a lower order and deprive it of its authority. It should rather support it in case of need.”6
Notice that both the CCC and Compendium make it very clear that subsidiarity does not mean that if one were to concoct a means by which a lower order could perform a task as good (or even better) than the order to which the function belongs, then it should absorb that function. Not at all!
In conclusion, each order, each sphere within society, is given various tasks it must or ought to perform. Sometimes these are clear-cut. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes we are left with a great deal of gray. But subsidiarity must not be understood as some libertarian wishbone. Instead, it is restricted to the overlapping areas and those gray regions. Unfortunately for the libertarian-leaning Distributist, this turns out being more of a bust than a boom, as so many of their policy proposals stand or fall on an accurate understanding of subsidiarity.